Late last night, an editorial by Angelina Jolie, entitled “My Medical Choice,” went live on the New York Times. In the editorial, Jolie revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy as a preemptive protection from breast and ovarian cancer. Jolie, whose mother died of breast cancer at 57, also revealed that she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and, in her words, “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.”
In the editorial, Jolie vividly describes the specifics of the procedure:
My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.
Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.
Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.
She also explicitly encourages women to explore their options and closes with an explanation of her decision to publicize her own surgery:
I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.
What It Means:
Just to be clear, analyzing the release of this news — and its effect on Jolie’s star image — does not take away from the actual, lived experience of a mastectomy, the difficulty of Jolie’s decision, or the power of her decision to write about it. I am in now way attempting to trivialize Jolie or her decision.
But as star scholar Richard Dyer explains, actors becomes stars when their images “act out” what matters to broad swaths of people. For many years, Jolie acted out deviance and rebellion; for many years after, she acted out motherhood, multiculturalism, and philanthropic engagement. Those valences are all still very much a part of Jolie’s image, but today they’re emboldened by a very conscious decision to publicize a procedure that literally removed a primary locus of her star power. And that decision — the very fearlessness of it — is actually very much in line with her image up to this point.
The first thing to note about the op-ed is just how surprising it was. This wasn’t the culmination of weeks of rumors of hospitalization. Rather, the entire procedure was kept under wraps, even though it was performed at a clinic in Los Angeles. We’ll likely never know how they leveraged that level of silence — most likely a combination of non-disclosure agreements and capital — but what matters is that the secret held. As a result, Jolie could release the story completely on her terms. She set the narrative and the tone and, in so doing, the way people would talk about her today and for years to come. In publicist’s terms, she was able to “own” the story from the very beginning.
Because of that ownership, the announcement isn’t of an action star losing her breasts, but of a woman gaining courage and acting on the desire to watch her children grow. It’s not a tragedy, but a triumph.
If you’ve followed the history of Pitt and Jolie, then you know that this type of control is nothing new — ever since the photos of the pair playing with Zahara [EDIT: MADDOX] on the beach first hit the cover of People, they’ve controlled the narrative of their romance and their family. Whether or not you’re Team Brangelina, the fact remains that they leverage publicity better than any other high-profile star today.
When the gossip magazines pitted them against Jennifer Aniston, they sold those same magazines — well, specifically, People — photos of them with their children…and then donated the millions to charity. But those photos of companionship and familial bliss spoke the language the minivan majority wanted to hear, and helped placate any remaining resentment of the couple that supposedly broke the heart of the girl next door. They sell art photos to W; Pitt talks about architecture to Architectural Digest and industry to Vanity Fair. They know where certain narratives belong and to whom they speak.
Which is why it’s no accident that this announcement appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times. The Times screams “last bastion of serious journalism” — and, of all the mainstream news publications, it’s the least enervated by celebrity news. (Clearly there’s some, but far less than, say, the Los Angeles Times or Time). Most celebrity health stories / triumphs make the cover of People, replete with photos of the star looking resilient and surrounded by family. They are, in most cases, publicity: a means of keeping the star in the public eye during his/her absence….or, more tragically, a paycheck to leave behind to surviving family.
Choosing the Times has myriad benefits, publicity-wise. The audience dwarfs that of People or the audience of, say, the Today show. But it also de-feminizes the story: People, Us, and the morning shows are all primarily directed at women. They are “feminized” media products which, in our contemporary media environment, means they’re considered fluffier, less legitimate, more trivial. (I’m not saying I like this distinction, but so it is). But for Jolie, a double mastectomy – and this decision in general — isn’t just a woman’s issue. It’s a family issue, and one that requires societal support.
Because the implicit message of the op-ed is stunning: Jolie is one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her breasts, in no small part, made her a star. But she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom. Women have been hearing this message for years, but with this editorial, Jolie not only makes it available to men, but proves it through the very existence of her resilient, still sexual body.
And this is no tell-all interview, no banal celebrity profile. There’s no fawning description of Jolie’s children surrounding her, or how peaceful she looks in her bed. It’s a narrative in her voice, with her story, her decision, her description. Because of the length constraints of the op-ed, it’s unembroidered, to the point and, well, persuasive. There’s no glossy photos attached, nothing to distract you from Jolie’s words. It’s short enough that few will skim. The lede might still be “Star Famous For Boobs Has Double Mastectomy,” but because of the brevity of the piece — and the sheer desire to read more about the procedure – millions are actually reading her words, rather than simply seeing the announcement on the cover of a magazine.
The op-ed persuades readers of the legitimacy of Jolie’s decision. It also works to persuade others to consider this decision for themselves, effectively legitimizing the option for millions. But the op-ed also serves a secondary persuasive purpose, and I dont’ think it’s trivial to highlight it. As I’ve watched thousands react to this story online, I’ve witnesses an outpouring of support, of course, but also respect, especially from women. Jolie has never been a “girl’s girl.” She’s that girl who always did her own thing, who hung out with the guys, who never had a ton of female friends. She’s so beautiful that she alienates; she’s so different that she intimidates. But this op-ed makes Jolie seem humble, thoughtful, and conscious of the way that publicizing a private decision can benefit more than just her career and image. Jolie has long been a public advocate for peace and women’s rights on the global level, but for many, that work seemed to exotic, too altruistic, only further contributing to her distant, intimidating exoticism. Jolie was never “just like us” — her life was nothing like ours.
There are still some elements of that exotic otherness in the op-ed — “my partner Brad Pitt,” for one — but the overall tone is one of warmth and identification. There’s not even a photo to remind you of the beautiful symmetry of her face, or the eclectic and overwhelming cuteness of her kids. It’s just a woman talking about her breasts, her family, and her decision to sacrifice one in hopes of holding on to the other. The two lines of the piece reads “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.” I’ve never seen Jolie use a collective “we.” But this might be the moment in her star narrative when fans began thinking of themselves and The Jolie in the same sentence.
YOUR PERFECTLY LIT RAYNA/DEACON SHIPPING PHOTO:
YOUR ESTEEMED PARTICIPANTS:
AHP: First off, I’d like to acknowledge that the show has finally hit a bit of a stride. There was a period there — oh, about seven episodes ago — when I was just like SEPARATE ALREADY. And then Rayna went two-stepping with Liam and had to have that moment by herself in the bathroom [BEEN THERE, RAYNA] and things just started rolling. At last.
Jia: I am trying to think of a better way to phrase this, but… Gunnar and O.C. Luke are totally going to bang. In my mind at least. That scene when they cheat death and get all ecstatic and screamy as the train rolls by?
Jorie: They are for sure going to bang.
Jane: Homosocial bonding! (And all those scenes from old films where a passing train so obviously signifies pent-up erotic desires.) (AHP: Good Hitchcock call, Jane.) (Jane: Yes! Hitchcock, Renoir, and my favorite BRIEF ENCOUNTER.)
AHP: O.C. Luke! THAT’S WHERE HE’S FROM!
Jia: He is 33 and does not look a day older than 33. Luke, actually, is a helpful reference for me (in terms of characters getting rewritten out of left field) as I process Dante’s INSANELY QUICK and HIGHLY HILARIOUS character transformation from Mild, Reasonable Sober Companion to High-Powered Major Label Pop Star Manager. Over the course of the last episode, Dante’s hair got 500% greasier as he fully inhabited his new Addicted 2 Biz life. I cannot wait for this very unrealistic storyline to just explode all over the place, although I am sad for Juliette, because she has regressed back to her Toddlers & Tiaras persona. (Allison: I like to think about character consistency from one role to the next, so the same Jay Hernandez who was Brian Chavez in Friday Night Lights has somehow become Dante. And the same Chris Carmack who was Luke Ward in The O.C. has made it to Nashville. And obviously I think of Juliette Barnes as an extension of Claire Bennet from Heroes.)
I am also sad for Scarlet, even though Gunnar is being nice to her, because in the last few episodes she has reached new heights of drippy milkmaid passive “I’d be much happier if I could just make you dinner and clean the house” bad-accent Wig Madness. I hope she gets an assertive hair-wardrobe-and-attitude makeover on Rayna’s label (YAY THAT PLOT).
SE: Scarlett kind of reminds me of a Lifetime movie lead, but I can’t decide if she’s the Lifetime movie lead who boldly remakes her life in a “becomes the man she wanted to marry”/Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves kind of way, or in a “Lifetime as the ‘Women Having A Hard Time Channel’” kind of way, like at any moment she could say/warble, “But he’s a GOOD MAN!”
Jane: Oof, Scarlett’s character is almost painfully stock Sacrificial Maiden, and while I’m excited for the Gunnar/O.C. Luke (aka Nashville Will Lexington), I wish it wasn’t at the sake of Scarlett. (That knowing look on Gunnar’s face when Scarlett flounces away, happy that Will has been a “good influence” on him.) Like, very many levels of character sacrifice here! And I want to trust Khouri, but, yes Jia, Scarlett makeover a la Thelma — anytime now.
KP: I’m concerned about Scarlett/Gunnar in that I actually prefer them singing together (they are sort of making me feel better about the break-up of The Civil Wars). The music is one of the best parts of the show, so if that is ever threatened by plot, I sort of get annoyed. (AW: Yes, Civil Wars! I heard a rumor they’re getting back together. Fingers crossed.)
Also, does anyone else agree that Panettiere is becoming a much better singer? Seems less nasal now.
AHP: I feel like she’s still nasaly and a bit too Carrie Underwood on the power ballads, but I love it when she’s doing the quiet Deacon-inspired stuff — “Consider Me” is gorgeous. They’re also doing an okay job with getting around the, er, frailty of Connie Britton’s voice (see: “Stronger than Me.”)
Jorie: I think we mentioned this last time, but the frailty of Connie Britton’s voice is actually kind of destructive to what is ostensibly the central conflict of the show. Cuz Juliette is actually better than she is. Especially, as you said, when she sings with Deacon.
KP: I’m gonna step in here to ask if country singers need good voices. I know Carrie Underwood has us all thinking that, but isn’t frailty a great attribute in a country singer. I know she’s Mrs. Coach, so I’m likely super biased, but I sort of love Connie’s voice. It is much more vulnerable and poignant. Her singing (like her acting) requires risk.
AHP: My subjective opinion based on nearly two decades of country music listening: yes. In fact, I can’t think of a single female country star (or male star, for that matter) without a powerhouse voice. Taylor Swift, maybe, but that’s another story. The problem is that Britton’s supposed to be the Faith Hill in this equation battling it out with Carrie Underwood, and Hill has effing PIPES.
KP: I liked that Juliette fired her manager. I think that could have been a good way to go — how does a child star grow up (important, useful topic for the actual world), but instead they’ve chosen to go down a less satisfying track.
Jorie: Can we discuss why Scarlett wears a wig? She has hair. WAIT. The Civil Wars broke up?!
KP: What does her actual hair look like? … Oh, sorry to break the news, Jorie. It is pretty tragic.
Jorie: I have no idea what her real hair looks like, actually.
Jia: (I am doing some Clare Bowen research right now and A. her Twitter is actually 50% cupcakes [that is a joke I would have made up about her but it’s true] and 50% adorable photos of her and her menagerie of animals, B. she was the lead in an Australian production of Spring Awakening, with Cate Blanchett as the artistic director! I hate musicals! But I would have LOVED to see that!)
Jane: Compulsory Defense of Musicals Interlude: WOWWWW. I would love to see that, and if Bowen played Wendla (originated by Lea Michele of Glee fame) then we know she can handle nuance. Can someone please make Scarlett’s character just a wee bit more round, and not on the verge of tears all the time? (Also recently learned that Spring Awakening is a DUNCAN SHEIK production, but that makes soooo much sense. “The Mirror-Blue Night”? So Sheik.) (Jia: She was Wendla! [And my hate of musicals comes solely from having spent my entire childhood putting my hair in sausage-curl rollers for them.] And I actually love that Spring Awakening was Duncan Sheik — if there was a more naturalistic pop sensibility to contemporary musical theater, i.e. Nashville basically, everyone would get on board. I think the band Fun. is a flop sophomore album away from writing a decent musical. ALSO, ALSO, the actor who plays Gunnar is British – so Scarlett, the accent, PLEASE!) (Jane: FUN IS WRITING A MUSICAL? That makes so much sense; the lead singer’s voice screams musical theater (no pun intended), and I think his uncle has roots there? OK, Jia, the next time we meet, we will have a Musicals With Pop Sensibilities marathon. You will be converted; I can already tell. Aaaand Musical Interlude Scene.) (Jia: Sadly that is just my Fun. fantasy. Let me conclude my off-topic interlude here with THE MOST FUNNY clip of O.C. Luke dancing to Rooney and singing very terribly – hiding, clearly, the polished country twang that he unveils on Nashville.)
KP: The thing with the hair is that it reinforces the whole unrealistic Disney Princess nonsense. Disney Princesses are faux feminist, so the idea that Scarlett has to be fragile, beautiful, and soft (as represented by the hair) bums me out.
Jia: DO we think that Scarlett is going to hook up with Luke? Whose name is WILL, I keep forgetting, but he will always be Luke to me. I feel like such a complication is inevitable–they are inserting him into the Scarlett-Gunnar relationship in a very direct way. I would like to see Scarlett do something selfish and bad, is why I’m asking this.
Jorie: Do you not think he and Gunnar are going to do… something?
Jia: I WISH! I wish they would just all have a threesome, to be honest, and Luke and Gunnar have more intense chemistry than a lot of other couples on the show! But, you know… doubtful.
Jorie: I live in a delusional world where, until it doesn’t happen, I believe network television will do things like put the two hot guys with great chemistry in bed together and have the milkmaid come in with breakfast and just join them. But yeah, probably not. And in that case, I would say she would hook up with Luke, but this show is SO BAD at making people who should be having sex (for story’s sake, for melodrama’s sake, for entertainment’s sake) have sex.
Jia: Definitely. I also wonder if Luke is a sign that Avery is getting written off soon. That was a bit of a low point for me in terms of plausibility, when he burned those master tracks in a trash can like he was Taylor Momsen on Gossip Girl or something — I don’t think the writers really know what to do with him. (AHP: JIA I AM DYING)
Jane: I was wondering why they were still keeping Avery around — I mean, they show even had the out of firing but, but they’re keeping him so… I think there’s some dramatic criss-crossing left to happen there.
SE: It’s because he wears a leather thong necklace.
AHP: Well that’s it Simone, now that we’ve discussed the leather thong necklace, this Roundtable is Complete.
SE: Kill your idols, etc etc.
Jorie: But wait: Avery might turn back into a human now that he is forced, Tyler Perry style, to face good clean working class work. (Jia: TYLER PERRY STYLE *faints happily*)
KP: Yeah, I think they know they have a good actor as Avery, and he has a lovely falsetto. So if they can find a way to redeem him, he can someday sleep with Juliette (cause this show ultimately has the personal goals of all characters subsumed by sex).
Jorie: It claims to have all the personal goals of all the characters subsumed by sex. But then it doesn’t do it right. I couldn’t care less who Juliette sleeps with, since she clearly will sleep with every male cast member eventually. But either put Rayna and Deacon together, or move on. Make something actually shocking or interesting happen. Be more like Scandal. I’m frustrated with the show. I agree with AHP that it’s hit its stride more, but still could be so much better.
Jia: I have a feeling, though, that the sustained and excruciating separation of Rayna and Deacon is going to carry this show from season to season, as much as I wish it wouldn’t.
Jorie: But it’s not excruciating. That’s the problem. It’s gone on so long I don’t care. Although I am happy to see Deacon happy. Poor guy never catches a break.
KP: (raises hand) I care about Rayna and Deacon. Though a flashback episode (please, done better than #TVD and that one Gilmore Girls episode) would be sort of awesome to fill that out–why Rayna betrayed her lover of years to find security with the most boring man on the planet.
Jia: True. They’ve lost a lot of momentum. And gained a Labrador puppy. I was quite pleased at the shamelessness of that. “Meh, let’s just give him a puppy or something,” said some writer in response to “How can we keep the audience interested in Deacon now that he has a girlfriend that people will like but not root for because she ain’t got that Tami Taylor steez.”
Jane: I find this genre of character so interesting, Jia! The romantic obstacle between the two fated lovers that isn’t captivating or interesting enough for us to hate (or love).
AW: I really hate that Deacon’s girlfriend is also the CIA agent’s wife on The Americans. Like, cannot handle it. She doesn’t have a big role in either, but it still freaks me out. If the shows were not on at the same time, I would apply my rule of linear progression referenced above and just say that the CIA agent’s wife became a veterinarian after divorcing him–or she entered witness protection and this is her new life — but the concurrent viewing precludes that.
Jane: But she does have the sort of Semi-Clueless Significant Other vibe in both roles, at least!
AW: True–she is consistent. Which makes it even easier to believe it’s all the same person.
KP: I loved the scene with Deacon and Rayna in the hospital. Yes, the elevator kiss was super hot, but I prefer these two as friends nevertheless. For a woman as confused as Rayna, it is nice to have one person get her. Speaking of, the sister is getting redeemed a bit, too. I wish they could pull that off with the father — give him something more to do than laugh evil-y.
Jorie: YES. I loved that scene. It was tortured and nice and appropriate. While the sister’s turn around is abrupt, I get that your dad having a heart attack could soften your edges temporarily. Plus, it seems like she’s going to take his place as schemer in chief. Which brings me to AHP’s topic list: Powers Boothe acting like he’s on Deadwood. Yes. What’s up, Powers Boothe?
Jane: When Boothe sat down in his leather armchair — glass of whiskey in hand — before his blazing fireplace, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of Don Draper’s future.
KP: I am not familiar with Powers Boothe, but everything I read tells me he is a great actor. Wish the show knew that.
Jorie: I wish the show knew that about the whole cast. See above re: Scandal. There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL. It just doesn’t have the writing chops. There is a moment or two in each episode that I really like, and the rest, meh.
AHP: Here’s what I like about what’s going on with Deacon and Rayna: it’s what actually happens when you’re friends with someone whom you’ve loved and lost. They’re best friends, and they know and understand each other in a way that no one else will. Rayna is seriously lonely — her sister is suddenly offering all sorts of insight and Rayna is suddenly heeding it — but, as is all too typical on network television, here’s a lady with NO FEMALE FRIENDS.
KP: Postfeminist BS Bingo. No female friends.
Jia: No kidding. Scarlett, too – that brief gesture towards female friendship when Hailey bought her a Cleavage Dress and took her out on the town was so quickly stifled by Gunnar’s Boner of Rage, which was my least favorite Gunnar moment in the show to date. Actually, it might be a more general failing that people on this show – aside from Rayna, who is good at warmly insinuating history in brief moments of interaction – just do not appear to have many friends, period. Fame and power are isolating, sure, etc, but that’s not enough of a justification – it’s like in literary fiction when characters ostensibly don’t hold jobs.
KP: So here’s the show’s dilemma — some real potential, and from what I can tell, reasonable success with the music. So how do they get more viewers? Do they want the country folks, and if they do, what makes them happy? I hate when a show is in search of an audience, because they just throw pasta on the wall without realizing they forgot to put the pasta in the water in the first place.
AW: Speaking of tension with Deacon and Rayna, how long are they going to draw out the paternity issue? Deacon rescues Maddie (the older daughter?) during the stampede at Juliette’s concert, he hangs out with her (and the new girlfriend) during Rayna’s concert, acting all fatherly. When is the big reveal? (Jane: Oh man, during that hug, I thought Rayna was going to look down and have a moment of “that’s the family I could have had” and stumble through the performance or something, but it was very much taken as a given! And Rayna’s tears by her father’s bedside at missing all those years they could have had? Is Rayna going to hint do the same with Maddie?)
Also, I wonder how everyone consumes the show — do you have TV, watch it live, DVR it, wait until it’s available online, etc? And do the answers to this question get at KP’s question re: increasing viewership?
SE: I watch it in Hulu binges when Grey’s Anatomy and SVU both have an off week. (Those are the weeks when I think, “I really miss my friends.” Which.)
Jane: Same! Hulu binges, so it’s not at the top of my list, though I am haaaanging on. (I missed a few episodes during that deep lull and might even recommend that to future viewers?)
Jia: I do not have a TV, but I solicit TV access from a friend for this show – Nashville and basketball are the only two things that I will get in front of a real TV for. I will say, though, I have a sense of this show as having a much broader audience than I would have expected – or maybe my college best-of-bro friends are just anomalously broadening their taste from Workaholics and the like – but I’ve been surprised at the demographic variety of the people I know who watch it.
AHP: I watch it via Hulu on my iPad, but almost exclusively while exercising. It is the PERFECT exercising show. I’m also somewhat surprised by how many of my (female) students watch it — probably because a.) it’s on Hulu and b.) I got them all addicted to Friday Night Lights last semester. NOTE TO ABC: YOUR 20- AND 30-SOMETHING AUDIENCE IS WATCHING VIA THE HULUS; DON’T GIVE UP ON THAT PLAN.
KP: Hulu but not so much a binge. My partner watches with me, but he’s not really that into it. If I didn’t make him, he wouldn’t watch. And is that a possible issue, too? Is there a reason for guys to watch this show? I mean, Deacon is sorta manly, but while we complain about Scarlet, at least the other females are relatively in charge of their lives. Are there any 3D male characters on this show?
AW: I have been wondering the same thing about Girls, though my question there expands to include what men who watch that show (if there are any) think of the representations of themselves vis-a-vis dating. I’m not sure there’s a similar question to be asked here, though maybe there is and I’m just not ferreting it out. (AHP: I don’t know where it’s sourced, or if it’s just internet legend, but apparently 60% of Girl’s audience is male. Fascinating).
SE: I think this is an important question but I must first insist that we introduce Lean In analytic. WHICH LADIES ON THIS SHOW ARE/ARE NOT LEANING IN? Part of me thinks all of them are. Like, Juliette, for all her rebel bullshit, is leaning in, right?
Jia: Juliette leans in so hard all the time. Every morning Juliette wakes up and tells herself to lean in at such a deeply acute angle that her powerless childhood (which here can be pictured as a congealed bowl of trailer pink mac-and-cheese) can never again haunt her in the present. Rayna’s hair is the ghostwriter for Lean In so there are no issues there. However, Scarlet only leaned in for this solo contract because her Authoritative Man gave her approval to do so. (SE: Connie Britton’s hair: never not leaning in. Also, congealed mac-and-cheese is kind of the best, so you CLEARLY MEANT Tuna Noodle Helper.)
AW: Scarlett totally leaned in once she got the head nod from Gunnar!
SE: Isn’t that the real problem with Lean In, that the Leaning Lady has to have always already had a dudely head nod before shit takes off?
KP: Dude(tte), that is so troubling. Could Sandberg only lean in when that little pipsqueak Facebook founder let her? The parallels there are troubling (yet apt). Scarlet needs help, STAT. Like, cutting off her hair, Felicity-style, help. Like, being killed and having her twin sister take over, unbeknownst to everyone around her. Like, is there any help for this character other than her voice (which hides a great chest voice most of the time)? How about this–let Deacon and Rayna be starcrossed forever (that’s fine with me–the tension works). How about letting Deacon mentor HIS ACTUAL NIECE? Now that could be interesting, and there would be no nonsense about his trying to sleep with her, like every other storyline on the show.
SE: Can we talk about what this show does with/about addiction? I say this mostly because I am “watching” Elementary while I work and that show ALSO has a “sober companion.”
KP: Really enjoying Elementary (though not sure why Angelina’s ex always seems to be shouting). That is all.
AW: I have not seen Elementary (I have also not seen Deadwood, which I realize is a travesty that must be remedied immediately) but I do watch Nurse Jackie and Californication, two shows that very clearly address addiction. This seems like the Disney hand-holding, didactic version. Of course, it’s network compared to Showtime. How many characters struggle with addiction? Deacon, Coleman, Juliette’s mom. Anyone else? Juliette’s mom seems to struggle more than Deacon and Coleman, at least in the present. Are we to make anything of that? (I’m trying really hard not to make it about gender and/or class, so mostly I want y’all to save me from myself here.) (SE: You are perfect and beautiful.)
KP: Ways to improve this show: 1) no more sex. For any characters. Only longing, which is more dramatic anyway. 2) Scarlet is only allowed to sing with Gunnar, though in all other aspects of her life she must make her own choices. In fact, she should start telling him how to live, cause his choices are crap. 3) Avery needs to be redeemed. That actor is too cute not to be on the show. And I’m sorry, Annie, but “Kiss” is a damn hot song. 4) More about songwriting, performance anxiety/mechanics, and the business of music. The damn thing is set in Nashville, so let’s get some insider dish (beyond dumb guest star spots that give the guest stars nothing to do). 5) More scenes with Rayna and Juliette, as long as they never cat fight or enact any other cliches. Genuine jealousy, competition, understanding, achievement, collaboration only. 6) More of Rayna’s sister being a real person, not a cartoon. She can be conflicted (but I’m a business woman, too, and therefore must make money!!), but she still needs to be, you know, a human. 7) Dad should have died. Sorry, but the character was never developed beyond the twirling mustache. He and Teddy should accidentally shoot other in a twisted sex game.
AW: Booth should have died, YES. Great idea to have Deacon mentor Scarlett, though I want to see Scarlett and Rayna write and sing together. And I want to see Scarlett leave Gunnar and live alone. Figure your shit out, girl. I wonder if the writers are shying away from the music industry in an effort to appeal to a broader audience in the same way that FNL writers avoided too much football talk. “It’s not really about football” (except of course it was).
KP (cont):I actually really, really, really like Nashville. I think Mrs. Coach has a character with interesting conflicts and a great acting partner in Deacon. Juliette has redeemed Panettiere, which is pretty much all I need to say about that. Gunnar and Scarlet have great (musical) chemistry. How albums are made. What are the challenges of the business. How hard it is to balance work and home. All of that is awesome. So just go do that and cut the silly melodramatic. I’m a girl, and I like romance, but I don’t need dumb. [Oh, and Ms. Khouri--you are working with your husband. I imagine that is an interesting relationship. So put Rayna with Deacon, and let them act out your life for us. That would be a damn good show]
AHP: [DROPS MIC; PICKS IT UP AND PASSES IT TO THE REST OF THE INTERNET]
Where to find it:
New Spring Endorsements, including lots of broccoli recipes, on Virginia Quarterly Review. Plus my long form piece on “The Rules of the Game: 100 Years of Hollywood Publicity.”
On Slate: Photoplay‘s feature on ”The Best Figure of 1931.” (Winner: Lupe Velez!)
For Laptham’s Quarterly: “The Hollywood Canteen” (Bette Davis ran that game).
On Avidly.org: “Trade in Your Sexiest Men.”
The most recent Scandals of Classic Hollywood on The Hairpin:
And what I’m most excited about: writing about the artists of Lilith Fair with Simone Eastman, also for The Hairpin. Tracy Chapman is already published; Natalie Merchant is forthcoming in a matter of days.
Oh, did you know I have a book COMING SOON-ISH?!?
Finally, the chair of my department and I have been doing a podcast, and we’re finally not totally embarrassing. In our latest episode, we talk about the premiere of Mad Men and Spring Breakers, amongst many other things. Subscribe if you feel inclined.
Just a very quick note on this week’s episode of Scandal, a show that’s doing some of the most interesting (network) work in storytelling, female desire, postfeminism, race, and the intersections between all of the above. But what I found interesting about this week’s episode had nothing to do with those qualities and everything to do with it’s evocation of “morality clauses” in contracts — a page straight from the playbook of classic Hollywood.
If you don’t watch Scandal, the basic premise is as follows: Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a “Fixer,” a term borrowed from classic Hollywood and meant to connote her behind-the-scenes, treading the line between legal/illegal, “fixing” of various potential scandals. She also works on political campaigns, but that’s another story.
Within this particular episode, Pope is hired to help spin the scandal from the revelation of an old affair between a female CEO and her former law professor. When she was a law student and he was a law professor, they engaged in an affair; now said affair is coming to light because the law professor is nominated for the Supreme Court. Not an altogether unfamiliar scenario.
But what really interested me was how the company of which the female participant in the affair (nicely played by Lisa Edelstein, formerly of House) is subject to censor from the company of which she is the CEO, which threatens to fire her for violating the terms of her contract, specifically, a “morality clause.” Even though her “transgressions” occurred fourteen years in the past, her Fortune 500 company could still fire her for actions that did not adhere to the moral standards of the company. Or, more bluntly, any actions that, once revealed, would incite negative press coverage and make the stock price drop.
The board of this company seems to have the CEO cornered: her actions violate the morality clause, even if they were committed years ago, and they’re about to vote to fire her. But at the last minute, some associates of Olivia Pope barge into the board room and threaten to all sorts of dirt on the other members of the board, all of whom have also signed contracts with morality clauses.
In truth, these Pope Associates have nothing. No dirt. I’m sure they actually could find something, but they had a time crunch. But the very suggestion that they had dirt was enough to make all of these (male) board members feel very guilty and quietly rescind their threat to invoke the morality clause in her contract. As close up of individual board members makes abundantly clear, the vast majority of them have also violated their own morality clauses.
And here’s where we return to Classic Hollywood. Morality clauses never (or very rarely) actually govern the behavior of the contracted individual, whether a member of a board or a Hollywood star. Instead, it’s all about appearance — and surveillance. Companies publicized morality clauses much in the same way that the studios, following the scandals of the early ’20s, publicized their own clauses. Ultimately, adherence to the clauses mattered very little — indeed, no star was every fired. What mattered was the appearance of strict moral regulation.
Perhaps even more importantly, the knowledge of such clauses legislates behavior. Or, rather, makes it go underground, ostensibly immune to surveillance. In classic Hollywood, this meant relying on Fixers employed by the very company that had made you sign the contract with the morality clause. Today, it means that individuals, whether on the corporate or celebrity level, understand that their behavior will be surveilled. Crucially, however, it doesn’t mean that they will actually alter their behavior. Humans do “immoral” things, broadly defined. Humans have affairs; humans do drugs; humans have peccadilloes. Morality clauses persist not to actually change behavior, but to a.) make outsiders believe that the company/studio/whatever does not endorse that behavior and b.) to force that behavior underground.
It’s a totally screwy system. But that’s ideology and the realities of American conservative values.
I love the “What I Read” pieces in The Atlantic, in which well-known writers and bloggers detail their media consumption diets. Emily Nussbaum, Sasha Frere-Jones, Nate Silver, The Fug Girls. Or, as the intro to each segment puts it:
How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can’t they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers.
Now, I am NO PROMINENT FIGURE IN MEDIA. But a reader asked me to do this the other day, and today, having spent the last five days writing the first third of the Scandals book, I need to something, anything, that doesn’t involve narrativizing the crappy way female stars from the ’20s were treated by the press. Either you’re like me and like to know the habits of people whose writing you consume, or clicking away, which, totally okay! But I’d love to read your own “What I Read” pieces: let’s wrest this feature away from the well-read and the important. Or just talk about it in the comments.
And so, What I Read:
I wake up, roll over like a lazy person, and scroll through my phone. I live in PST, which means that I’ll often have a solid amount of email coming in from those of you on the East Coast. But this first move through email, Twitter, and Facebook is just to get my bearings, make sure no giant gossip story has broken, etc. As I get ready for the day, I keep NPR from Seattle (KUOW) streaming on my phone. One of the things I’ve always loved about NPR is how difficult it makes it to only consume the stories that interest you — I find out about international news, stories of veterans, weird local stuff from Northeastern Washington State, play-by-plays of the latest Supreme Court battles, all because it’s in the stream. I spend so much of the day reading only what interests me, so it’s good to listen to things that don’t, at least ostensibly, grab my interest.
These days, I go to my office to start the work day. If I’m teaching that day, I’ll have a bunch of prep to sandwich between my media consumption, but as anyone who teaches media studies can tell you, the line between “prep” and “just reading the entire internet” is a fine line. This semester, I’m teaching a class in Gender/Sexuality/Media, so I’m constantly finding classroom fodder in my daily explorations.
I wish I was a person who opened her browser and read through the New York Times and checked a bunch of unique websites. Instead, I let Twitter and Facebook tell me what’s important. I follow a relatively small amount of people on Twitter (around 325) because I want to be able to follow narratives, conversations, and keep up with things that people I admire link to. Some people, like Ray Pride at Movie City News, are great retweeters, even of stuff that doesn’t necessarily jive with my own political/cultural views, so people like him are essential to my Twitter stream. I follow a lot of writers and critics, which keeps me abreast of conversations happening in the critical realm in terms of contemporary media, as well as industry publications (Hollywood Reporter, Variety) and publications that cover celebrity (Us Weekly’s Twitter feed is preposterous and hilarious; Vanity Fair has a curious tone that frequently amuses).
And on both Facebook and Twitter, I’m connected to dozens of media studies academics, whose investment in television, celebrity, and the industry at large also helps keep me current. Chris Becker maintains the spectacular “News for TV Majors” feed, which helps cull the best/most compelling industry news from the chaff.
I always spend time on The Hairpin, The Awl, Vulture, Lainey Gossip, and Grantland. I often end up on Fug Girls, the New Yorker blog, The Atlantic, The Billfold, and Dear Television. I’ll almost always read a review posted by Nussbaum (The New Yorker), Alan Sepinwall (Hit Fix), Matt Zoller Seitz (New York), Andy Greenwald (Grantland), or Dana Stevens (Slate). I read everything written by Molly Lambert (Grantland; although I admit I don’t read her music chart stuff), Mallory Ortberg (all over, but mostly The Hairpin, The Gloss, Gawker), Jane Hu (The Awl), Maria Bustillos (all over), Lindy West (Jezebel) and Linda Holmes (NPR). I love it when Edith Zimmerman, editor of The Hairpin, writes long form pieces for other places. I love everything Nicole Cliffe, books editor for The Hairpin, writes about her baby, horses, dogs, and life in general. Looking at that list, WOW, I like lady writers.
Sometimes I’m looking for things to post to the Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Facebook page, but more often than not, those links just fall in my lap. But again, I rarely just go to one of these sites and look for interesting things to read — I’m almost always guided there by a link on FB or Twitter.
I don’t spend much time on sites explicitly devoted to gossip, save Lainey Gossip. On Lainey, I only read the pieces about stars in which I am in some way invested or that are just amazing gossip (the recent photos of Lindsay Vonn and Tiger Woods, for example). I never read the pieces by Sarah or the advice columns. I go to People.com or UsWeekly.com only for breaking celebrity news (what an amazing phrase). I periodically read Fug Girls for the commentary and during Mad Men season, I DEVOUR the Tom & Lorenzo fashion recaps. All of this reading is generally mashed in between class prep, actually teaching classes, meeting with students (at a school like Whitman, there’s a constant stream of students who just want to hang out and talk about anything and everything), reading student blog posts, and doing my own work.
But I also read long things! I’m a diehard “Pocket” user, and when something’s long, I’ll put it in there for safe keeping. I usually read my Pocketed stuff over lunch or after dinner with a gin and tonic. I get an email with “The Best of Longreads” every week, and there’s always one or two things on that list that surprises me — and comes from places on the internet I don’t usually frequent. I read The New Yorker every week while on the spin bike (stop making fun of me) — never cover to cover, but at least two-three of the long form pieces, and always the reviews. I also subscribe to GQ, Vanity Fair, and Cook’s Illustrated. Big goal for the coming year = the Sunday New York Times.
I read real-life books, usually given to me my my mother, who reads everything, or my brother, who reads everything else and, given his gig at n+1, gets tons of galleys in the mail. I’m part of a Facebook book club (stop laughing again) with a bunch of media studies kids, and we read something topical every month – Gone Girl, for example, or last summer, Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m also constantly (re)reading the assigned reading for my classes, which adds up to a lot when you’re teaching three classes. The only academic journal I seek out in its entirety = Celebrity Studies. I try to find new star/celebrity scholarship, but it’s not like there’s a Twitter account for that…it’s mostly word of mouth, or things I hear about at conferences. (My latest acquisition: Paul McDonald’s excellent new book on the industry of Hollywood Stardom).
As for blogs, I have an elaborate (soon to be defunct) Google Reader like everyone else, although I only read about 1/16 of what I have collecting there. I used to follow a bunch of fashion/outfit blogs, but ever since my favorite (What Would a Nerd Wear) went into retirement, I just can’t bring myself to look at the over-belting. I read the always amusing Yoonanimous, I get ideas from Cup of Jo and try really hard not to be annoyed by over-mommy-ness. I read the proto-scholarship blog Antenna, especially when there’s a piece written by one of my friends. I used to read a bunch of media studies blogs, but the rise of Twitter has really decreased the frequency with which most people post. I still read everything on JustTV (Jason Mittell), Judgmental Observer (Amanda Ann Klein), Planned Obsolescence (Kathleen Fitzpatrick), and Johnny Case in Wonderland (the head of my department, Robert Sickels).
The only place I read the comments = The Awl and The Hairpin, and not just because I write pieces for them. If you’ve hung out in the comments section of either, you understand.
While reading all of these things, I’m constantly listening to music. I used to have a 100-disc changer (thanks for the high school graduation present, Dad!) and would listen to the same things over and over again. Now I have Spotify for that. I’ll listen to an album on repeat for a few days, then change to another album.
I listen to podcasts when I’m cleaning, when I’m cooking, when I’m driving long distances, and when I’m lifting weights. I’m a devoted consumer of Slate’s Cultural Gabfest and Chris Ryan/Andy Greenwald on The Hollywood Prospectus. I listen to about half of the episodes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I listen to Grantland’s Reality Friday, even though I don’t watch the shows, because they’re just so hilarious at talking about reality television in general. I’m still giving the all-female Grantland podcast, Girls with Hoodies, a chance. I listen to Marc Maron’s WTF when there’s someone I like — same for Fresh Air and The Nerdist.
I only watch television and movies at night. I work all day, go work out, come back and do a bit more work with dinner mixed in, and then around 8:30, work goes off and television goes on. Since becoming a college professor and a real adult and having cable and DVR, my consumption patterns have changed, which is to say, I watch shows on the actual television like a grown-up instead of illegally downloading and watching on my tiny computer screen. This year I’m watching/have watched The Americans, Nashville, Scandal, The New Girl, Parks & Rec, Boardwalk Empire, The Hour, Girls, The Good Wife, Top of the Lake, and Justified. I will soon be watching Mad Men and Game of Thrones. The stuff that I can watch via Hulu Plus on the bike/while running on the treadmill, I often watch that way. I also watch a ton of movies via Netflix and Amazon Prime (via Apple TV). I’ll try any show once. Our multiplex in Walla Walla is very mainstream, but when there’s something worth seeing, I LOVE going to the actual movie theater.
WHEW. That’s a lot of media, a lot of reading, a lot of consuming. But I guess that’s why I’m a media studies professor, yes? A recent Onion headline read “Find the Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights and Weekends For the Rest of Your Life.” For better or (very rarely) worse, the line between what I do during the day and what I do on nights and weekends is permanently blurred.
I love J-Law; you love J-Law; everybody loves J-Law. Or so seems to be consensus following last week’s Academy Awards, where she tripped up the stairs, made a self-deprecating speech, performed authenticity and humility without seeming tri-hardy, reacted amazingly to Jack Nicholson in the awards press, and gave the best responses to banal post-award reporter questions in the history of banal post-award reporter questions. She was, in a word, charismatic. And she differentiated herself from Anne Hathaway, who seemed, according to whom you ask, calculated, too happy, ingenuous, too performative, etc. etc.
In the week since the awards, the battle between these two types of contemporary female stardom have battled it out in the pop culture opinion blogosphere. If you’re interested, check here, here, and here. Posting these arguments to this blog’s Facebook page, I was impressed with the reaction, characterized by a recoil at the idea that both types of stardom, and the negotiation of femininity they represent, can’t co-exist. TRUTH, READERS, TRUTH. As several of you pointed out, no one is comparing Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz or Ben Affleck and Ang Lee — there’s room for plenty of men at the top. But when it comes to women, we’ve got to pit them against one another. There’s a long tradition of this “women against women” strategy: see, for example, the crazy, entirely-press-fueled “war” between Garbo and Dietrich, or, more recently, the enduring attempts to pit Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, both powerful women in Hollywood, in a fight to the death for Brad’s affections.
To be clear, I have zero problem with articulating one’s dislike or like for a particular star. When we talk about the stars we like and dislike, we’re associating their images, and what they represent, with ourselves. The things we like — television shows, music, stars — are signifiers of our own personality. To like Jennifer Lawrence, to like Anne Hathaway, is to say volumes about the type of contemporary femininity you admire and with which you would like to associate yourself. With that said, I don’t think that lambasting the person with whom you don’t want to associate yourself is very productive. Be a fan all you want, and articulate why you don’t like another star, but don’t be an ass, and don’t frame it in terms of “there can only be one!” There can be many. The more, the better. Anne Hathaway’s image is not one to which I do not cotton, but that doesn’t mean that I think she’s a bitch, worthless, or should retire. In fact, she’s really f-ing talented. But just like you can admire an argument and not agree with it, I can admire her and not “like” her.
But I do want to unpack the unadulterated affection for Lawrence, whose “star” performance has been framed as wholly natural, authentic, and unperformative. Hathaway molds her image; Lawrence just is. In truth, Lawrence, with the help of her publicist and agent (who have been lauded all over the place in the trades) is just good at appearing to not perform. She shares this attribute with the most enduring stars of old — Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, early Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts. In our current moment of hyper-manipulation, we cling even more to those who can seem wholly unmanipulated. And I’m not trying to be a asshole when I suggest that Lawrence understands that what’s she’s doing, in terms of madcap honesty, will further her career and brand. She’s smart. She’s savvy. I don’t think she’s a conniving, manipulative star, but I do think that she is very much cognizant of what she’s doing.
Lawrence’s particular negotiation of “naturalness,” skill, emotion, and femininity wouldn’t be popular at any given moment in time. It’s very specific to our current cultural moment, in which the “cool girl” fills a specific ideological function, adhering to a paradoxical understanding of what a woman should and should not be, a peculiar negotiation of feminism and passivity.
The best articulation of the “cool girl” comes from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I have some serious problems with this book (is Flynn a misogynist? DISCUSS.) but as Mallory Cohn, one of the smart commenters on one of the Facebook posts about this topic, astutely pointed out, Lawrence is the embodiment of the “cool girl” persona perfectly described by Flynn’s heroine. Here’s the passage in full:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
Again, I’m unsure if Flynn hates women or if this protagonist hates all women, but the outlines of this “cool girl” resonate, do they not? That’s because it’s a product of ideology, and ideology is always super contradictory and falls apart under inspection. The cool girl is a guy’s girl who also loves sex. She’s masculine yet super feminine. She’s all the “good things” (read: amendable to contemporary patriarchy) about girls and none of the “bad things” (read: ball busting, interested in her own destiny, willing to advocate for her own rights). But that’s how the media, and more specifically, stars, work: they provide us with examples of “real people” who are proof positive that images like “cool girl” exist.
Lawrence is a powerful, beautiful woman who also thought that Seth McFarland was “great.” This infuriates me, but it works perfectly with her image: she’s no ball-busting feminist. She’s chill. She can take a joke. She is, as People Magazine recently declared, the woman that all women want to be like and all men love. She’s the effing cool girl. Only time will tell if she has to hew to that image or breaks out of it entirely. For now, however, we need to think about what our adoration of that image represents — and complicate our unadulterated affection. I still love her, but I need to continue to think about why.
First things first: I like Beyoncé. I like her songs. I think she’s a great dancer and a phenomenal singer. She and Jay-Z are incredibly skilled at controlling their own images, and if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know how I love an exquisite case of star production.
What bothers me, then — what causes such profound ambivalence — is the way in which she’s been held up as an exemplar of female power and, by extension, become a de facto feminist icon….effectively the patron saint of every feminist blog, including the non-explicitly feminist blog to which I regularly contribute. And let’s be clear: Beyoncé is powerful. F*cking powerful. And that, in truth, is what concerns me.
But let’s explore the feminist/empowered woman case:
*Over the last decade, Beyoncé has repeatedly broadcast her independence, fiscally and physically. She refuses to hew to (white) body ideals, because her body is “too bootylicious.”
*She (and Destiny’s Child) believe women should be “independent” and self-reliant. To wit:
The shoe on my feet, I’ve bought it
The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it
The rock I’m rockin’, I’ve bought it
‘Cause I depend on me
*Aforementioned song was the theme for Charlie’s Angels, a film (ostensibly) about female empowerment, vis-a-vis fighting.
*The song “Survivor” is about women perserving through break-ups and thriving in the aftermath.
*She released a song called “Girls Run the World.”
*Three years ago, she owned the feminist label, but “in a way.” Her explanation: “My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship, because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.”
*She told GQ: “You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat?” she says in her film, which begins with her 2011 decision to sever her business relationship with her father. “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”
*Jay-Z is taking her hyphenated name (they’re both Carter-Knowles).
*She was awesome at the Super Bowl and broke the electricity.
Other misc. arguments: she is powerful, she is strong, her thighs are strong, she has a Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she has shown the music business what’s up while not being Taylor Swift.
The unsettling thing, then, are the contours of Beyoncé’s feminism — which is only coincidental, not owned, feminism. In the Destiny’s Child’s era, it is commodity feminism — which is to say, postfeminism. As many, many scholars have persuasively argued, the ability to buy commodities — the vast majority of which only serve to further subjugate women to men — is feminist, then feminism is a word without meaning. In the Beyoncé qua Beyoncé phase, it oscillates between fantasy (“Girls Run the World”) and striving-towards-monogamous-coupling (“Single Ladies”). To refresh: “Single Ladies” is not about how being apart from a man is awesome; rather, it is about how men fail to secure what they want. Bemoaning and satirizing men’s inability to commit to monogamous relationships is not feminist; it is, in many ways, regressive — the inability to “put a ring on it” is denigrated; by default the ability to “put a ring on it” is celebrated. I’m not saying that feminist can’t be married. But placing “putting a ring on it” as the ultimate — I don’t need you to to tell me that that’s problematic.
Beyoncé says, in the pages of GQ, that she wants women to be financially independent, claiming that financial independence will help women change what’s declared sexy, and then she poses on the cover like this:
…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.
As she puts on a superb Super Bowl show, but does it in outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishes the otherwise powerful female body….
…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.
Because Beyoncé does, indeed, hold a tremendous amount of power. She is revered by men and women alike. She is not “too much” in the way that other female artists are — she’s not too weird like Gaga, or too abrasive like Nicki Minaj. She’s struck just the right tone between empowered and, let’s be clear, objectified.
Her status as object was driven home during her performance at the Super Bowl, which just happened to coincide with my re-reading of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” If you’ve taken a film class, you know that Mulvey, and this essay in particular, is the most influential essay in all of film history. It effectively built film studies as a discipline, inspiring enough response to differentiate film scholarship from what had, to that point, been predominantly rooted in either communication or English. Today, people chide at the mention of this essay, in part because it’s so polemic — as Mulvey herself admits — and inspired so many effective, persuasive critiques. But the fact, or rather, the guiding principle, remains: The Male Gaze is the structuring element of all cinema. And not just cinema, but television and filmed performance, broadly speaking.
To summarize a complex and nuanced argument, Mulvey argues that women become powerful — in part through their lack of a phallus, and the threat that represents — and the way to neutralize that threat is actually quite simple: either punish them within the context of the narrative (think film noir or horror films and how sexualized, powerful women get the ax) AND/OR turn them into sex objects, primarily by fetishizing (read: doing close-ups on) various sexualized parts of their bodies. They become less powerful; less-anxiety inducing — a sum of beautiful parts, rather than a ball-busting whole.
Beyoncé submits herself to this gaze, over and over again. I feel like this is a painfully obvious argument.
And before you say that men make her do this, remind yourself that she controls her own image. These decisions are HERS. No matter how many times she throws you the Sasha Fierce look, no matter how much leather she’s wearing, the fact remains that she’s dressing herself, preparing herself, willfully submitting herself, to her own sexual objectification. We fancy her a self-realized subject, but before the gaze of camera, she becomes an object, defined, no matter how much her look and her power seems to argue against it, by her to-be-looked-at-ness.
To some extent, I can’t blame her: her power stems from her ability to temper her power with her own objectification. She can say “Girls Run the World,” but so long as she wears that outfit at the Superbowl, it’s not threatening, because girls will never actually run the world. She can say that women should become financially independent so that they can determine what’s sexy, but so long as she appears on the cover of GQ adhering to the dominant ideals of what is sexy, she’s a non-threat. She can pose for pictures looking strong and returning the gaze, so long as she also poses for pictures like the ones above. Her power is evident but highly negotiated, effectively innocuous, even toothless: am I actually just describing mainstream contemporary feminism manifest?
During this past week’s Super Bowl discussions in class, my ambivalence to Beyoncé’s image was met with resistance. The resistance was, at least on the surface, one of defensiveness: Beyoncé is awesome. No doubt, students. She is, as I say at the beginning, a tremendously skilled singer, performer, star. But there was a secondary reaction and defense that soon emerged.
To summarize: Yes, Beyoncé is objectified. Yes, she caters to the male gaze. But that’s the reality of the current moment. That’s the game. So she acknowledges it for what it is, and she runs it.
These students are not wrong. In fact, they are very, very right. Beyonce is so successful — and so tremendously, universally likable — precisely because she reconciles the ostensibly powerful with the objectified. Because these days, it’s not cool to be a non-feminist. You can’t disavow it strongly, publicly. Awesome women — POPULAR women — are strong women. And I want to be very, very clear that I see the ways in which Beyoncé is strong. And celebrating that strength is part of our current cultural moment. But we still live within a patriarchal culture; one within which norms of female behavior and appearance are very clearly circumscribed, even if only implicitly.
And that implicitness is what makes it all the more insidious, all the more dangerous: Beyonce appears feminist. She appears to be a role model. But in reality, she’s playing within the boundaries.
Now, some may argue that that’s the way to make progress: do what you can. Manipulate. Understand what society demands of you, then exploit it. Exploit men, exploit what they think they want. And I agree: that was a viable way of affecting progress…..in the 1880s. In the 1920s. Even in the 1960s.
But we are, to be blunt, fucking past that point. To play within the boundaries, however effectively, is to reinscribe the legitimacy of those boundaries. Either you believe those boundaries are legitimate and will be with us for the foreseeable future — and, as a result, it’s silly to challenge them — or you believe that they’re constructs and thus deconstructable. Either you think that a negotiated feminism is good enough, or you’re brave enough to ask for more — of yourself, of Beyoncé, of others who you idolize.
As I told my class today, this isn’t simply a question of representation. The way we think and revere women on the page and on the screen has very real, lived ramifications. If women are rendered implicitly passive, to-be-looked-at, inherently and necessarily sexualized — and if we agree to that, explicitly or implicty — that agreement has all matter of manifestations. Manifestations for which we must be held responsible.
When we look at the material realities of patriarchal culture — the persistent wage divide, endemic spousal abuse, the very public fight on the part of Conservatives against women’s rights — it’s easy to say that we disagree with all of those things. Obviously I’m in favor of women’s rights. It’s much harder to see how our own equivocation about what it means to be a “powerful” woman has led to the persistence of those issues.
Beyoncé will still sing songs that we like. But that doesn’t mean that we have to like the negotiated comprise — between feminism and objectification, between subjectivity and objectivity — her career so clearly represents.
I am the worst kind. I am the person who didn’t even watch the pilot of this show because I had a preordained idea of what Zooey Deschanel had come to represent, in terms of star image, and assumed that the show would be an extension of that image — with a few well-chosen male friends to extend and extrapolate upon it. I am especially the worst kind, given the ease with which I ascribed to arguments concerning Deschanel’s overarching suckiness, for lack of a more academic term. She was too wide-eyed, she was singing in those insufferable Cotton commercials, she was twee. She was a more modest Katy Perry. She was what was wrong with feminism. I hated her.
But I totally didn’t. I’ve loved Deschanel since she played her records for her kid brother in Almost Famous. I especially loved her in All the Real Girls, which offers a totally different side of the Deschanel image, Danny McBride before he was Danny McBride, Paul Schneider being so weirdly attractive, and enough stunning vistas to make you move to North Carolina this very minute. It’s a quiet film, but it gets its hooks on you — the kind of film you still think about years later.
But then there was Elf and 500 Days of Summer and the duets with M.Ward — I mean, I can’t lie, they appeal to me the way that Anthropologie appeals to me, the way that every dress she ever wears appeals to me. But I also try and disavow the things that too obviously appeal to me. I often fail. I own many Anthropologie dresses, even if I do buy them on sale. So when Zooey Deschanel told Glamour that…
“I’m just being myself. There is not an ounce of me that believes any of that crap that they say. We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a f–king feminist and wear a f–king Peter Pan collar. So f–king what?”
…I posted it to the blog’s Facebook page. I admitted that I had judged Deschanel. I admitted I was wrong. And then everyone kept talking about how great New Girl was, etc. etc. so funny go watch it etc.
So fine. I did. I started with S02, as suggested. And it is legitimately, consistently, hilarious. I love it. I love all of it. Don’t get me wrong: I get why people dislike her. And what made me love the show wasn’t necessarily a recuperation of the much-loathed Deschanel image. She’s still wearing cute dresses. Her eyes are still wide. But the show is about her in the same way that Seinfeld is about Jerry: it’s mostly about friendship, situational humor, and the specifics of being a certain age in a certain time….as a certain demographic, which is to say middle-class, educated, urban people.
So here’s what I’ll stand by about New Girl: it’s not all about Zooey. The guy who played Officer Leo D’Amato in Veronica Mars is really, really funny. I kinda want to date the law school drop out turned bartender. The way it deals with race and gender is compelling and generative; I want to show every episode to my class and have them start a conversation about it, and not in a “ack look at how gross this is” sorta way. I laugh — really hard, like embarrass myself at the gym hard — all the time. It surprises me. You should probably start in S02, although I’ve heard great things about some of the episodes in S01. And if you’re in your late-20s/early-30s, educated, lived in an urban setting — either with a group of friends or hung out with a close-knit group of friends — it will probably make you nostalgic, or speak to your experience, or both. For me, it reminds me of the years when I lived with my girlfriends and had a close group of guy friends and we spent all of our time together — this was before engagements or babies — and were all way too wrapped up in each other’s business, and made fun of each other all the time, did weird projects, went silly places, accidentally got drunk on Tuesday nights, and were just generally, totally cheesily supportive of one another.
I realize that we could all do that because we were gainfully employed and able to pay our rent and had health insurance and were not crushed by student loan payments. I also realize that privileged people born between the years of 1975 and 1985 are not at a loss for programming that speaks to their desires and needs. But this is one of the most consistently amusing, compelling, and surprising I’ve found. If you feel like it will speak to you, give it a try. Or don’t, and tell me what programs do speak to you, and I’ll try them too. As clearly evidenced above, I love to be proven wrong.
Go watch Beasts of a Southern Wild already, will you?
The documentary The Imposter blew my mind much in the same way that Catfish did three years ago. I’m still thinking about it.
Take this Waltz bewitched me. Michelle Williams is excellent, Toronto is gorgeous, the plot did what plots often do not (at least as concerns female desire).
Bill Cunningham New York. Do you like fashion? Old people? Anna Wintour passing judgment? Kooky New York street photography? I fell in love with this movie and, of course, Bill Cunningham himself. Streaming on Netflix.
It’s Christmas time, which means it’s time to put away Love Actually and watch the underrated Family Stone. Rachel McAdams just kills me in this movie, plus I cry like a small child.
Best horrible show: Arrow. So clunky, so obvious, so hot right now!
Did I mention that I really really like Nashville?
Emily Nussbaum, writing in The New Yorker, convinced me to give Switched at Birth a chance. I’m so glad she did.
Alex Ross, “Love on the March” — the best breakdown of the history of gay culture in America and its political implications I’ve read. Historical yet super compelling: a must read.
“On Connie Britton’s Hair” from Avidly — glorious.
John Seabrook, “Factory Girls” — BAAAAAAAH! K-Pop IS SO CRAZY AND FASCINATING. Get on this.
Kiese Laymon, “How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance” — the best essay I’ve read this year. Revelatory.
David Remnick, “We Are Alive” — Bruce Springsteen at 62. He’s still effing got it.
Maura Johnson, “Why the Ads for Engagement Rings Make Me Uncomfortable.” An oldie by goodie.
Jane Marie, “He’s So Unusual” — Jane’s uncle did Cyndi Lauper’s make-up! Everything about this essay is amazing.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Where is Cuba Going?” — if JJS writes it, I will always read it.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Venus and Serena Against the World” — see what I mean?
Ann Powers, “It Isn’t (Just) Ironic: In Defense of the Hipster” — more specifically, Macklemore.
Mallory Ortberg, “Have you Heard the One About the Religious Woman Who Stops Being Religious in College?” Damn that girl can write.
Everything — no seriously, everything — in the Columbia Journalism Review “Fame” Issue.
I’ve been rereading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and it is blowing my mind all over again.
I avoided Swamplandia! for a long time because it seemed too twee, or maybe too fantasyland. But it’s amazing, the writing is amazing, the voice is unlike any other I’ve read.
Louise Erdich just won the National Book Award for her new novel, which I’m obviously going to love, but if you’ve read her before, The Master Butcher’s Singing Club is preposterously good: sausage, German veterans, North Dakota, this book has everything! Breaks your heart and mends it.
Beautiful Ruins is what you should be reading re: Dick & Liz instead of watching the abomination that was Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor. It’s part historical fiction, part romance, part beautiful Italian pastoral — perfect beach read that’s actually well-written.
The new Sade, no question: Jessie Ware, Devotion. Would it be blasphemy to suggest she might be even better?
The Nashville soundtrack, available piecemeal via Spotify [search "Nashville Cast"]
Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself/Hands of Glory. Superb writing/working music.
Horse Feathers, House With No Name / Thistled Spring. Iron & Wine + Josh Ritter.
Explosions in the Sky, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Any time I’m missing Friday Night Lights/Matt Saracen, here’s where I go.
I cannot adequately describe my love for the Sleep Cycle app. I’m obsessed with it. I’m always trying to up my “sleep quality” and looking at my sleep charts and really excited when I wake up in the morning and get to see the graph. Nerdily excellent.
I love Grantland, I love Grantland’s “Hollywood Prospectus,” but I love it the most when Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about movies and television. (Go here, then search for the ones where it’s a conversation between the two of them). It’s a particular taste — a mix of Philly, indexical music/film/television knowledge, educated humor — but it tastes so good.
My friend Rebecca Onion runs Slate’s new history blog, The Vault. She is brilliant and it is brilliant; end of story. Wee stoves, giant babies!
Finally, make Cook’s Illustrated meticulously-stepped Vegetarian Chili. It takes all day, but it will change your life. I’m not even a vegetarian and I can honestly say it tastes better than meat. Explanation here; pirated recipe here.
As always, please feel free to add your own endorsements in the comments — and I’d love to hear back once/if you try any of the items listed above.
(vis-a-vis Taylor Swift’s Red)
Has blue eyes (“State of Grace”)
You never saw him coming (“State of Grace”)
Is your achilles heel (“State of Grace”)
Took your virginity (or some approximation thereof) (“State of Grace”/”Red”/”Treacherous”/”Trouble”/”I Almost Do”)
If you have feelings for him, they will take the shape of metaphors involving colors (“Red”)
Is good with his hands (“Treacherous”)
Is trouble (“Trouble”)
Clarification: is trouble when he walks in (“Trouble”)
Has a new girlfriend (“Trouble”)
Wears belts with notches (“Trouble”)
Has a plane? To fly you places you’ve never been? (“Trouble”)
Still has your scarf in his desk drawer. That smells like you. (“All Too Well”)
Played t-ball (“All Too Well”)
Has a sister (HOLLA, MAGGIE G!) and a mother who tells stories about him (“All Too Well”)
Also glasses and a twin bed and a refrigerator with a light. (“All Too Well”)
Dates 22-year-olds. (“22″)
Has a chair by the window, looking out at the city (“I Almost Do”)
May or may not wonder about you (“I Almost Do”)
Has a telephone that you almost call almost every night (“I Almost Do”)
Is very active in dreams as concerns the touching of faces (“I Almost Do”)
Likes to break up and get back together like a 14-year-old boy (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Is one of those awesome guys who needs space after a month apart (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Music tastes: Indie Records > T.Swift (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Just to be clear, is never ever ever ever getting back together with you (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Adorable fight resolution tactic: put on a football helmut while fighting (“Stay Stay Stay”)
Carries groceries; finds 22-year-old amusement endearing (“Stay Stay Stay”)
Repeated, sad-faced refusal to put you on the top of his list (“The Last Time”)
Responds positively to jokes on the door (“Holy Ground”)
Fits poems like a perfect rhyme (“Holy Ground”)
His face = in every crowd (“Holy Ground”)
Has love as big as New York City (“Holy Ground”)
Dancing is not worthwhile without him (“Holy Ground”)
Has long handwritten note in pocket. Right now. (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”)
Incites sadness, beauty, tragedy (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”)
Has green eyes? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Has freckles? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Has a simple name? (Everything Has Changed”)
Eyes look like coming home? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Doesn’t like it when you wear highheels (“Begin Again”)
Doesn’t get that song (“Begin Again”)
Unchivalrous, untimely (“Begin Again”)
No really: doesn’t think you’re funny (“Begin Again”)
Probably is listening to this album on repeat just as much as I am (“Annie’s Deep Thoughts, 3 pm, Day After Thanksgiving 2012″)